Whether you are training a show horse or back yard pet, when you start training is as important as what you are training your horse to do. Many people wait until a horse is four or five years old to start training, suggesting that a horse is too physically immature to bear the weight of a human on their back before then. That argument has validity because horses do not physically mature until they are approximately seven years old. However the longer you wait to start training, the harder it is to convince your horse that letting you ride him is a better idea than just hanging around and eating all day.
There are few reasons to delay enjoying a well trained horse. Horses are like big kids; the sooner you teach them what they’re supposed to do, the less likely they are to give you a hard time when they grow up. And when a 1200 pound horse gives you a hard time, you are more likely to end up on the losing end of the argument.
Race horses are routinely broke when they are about 18 months old, so they are ready to run in the two year old races when the season starts. Having broken dozens of race horses, I can say with confidence that a lot depends on attitude; both yours and the horses. However, early, correct handling is still the key. If a horse is handled from the day he is born, as most race horses are, you have already made it over the first hurdle.
Touching is the most important step in getting a horse over their instinctive fear of humans. The last foal born on our farm had a halter on him a few hours after he was born. Within days, we started brushing him, and by the time he was a month old he had already had his first bath. He had his first trail ride before he was two years old and behaved like he had been trail riding for years. Not because he was particularly smart, but because he had been gently handled and trained from birth.
A horse’s first experience, whether positive or negative, will remain with them for the rest of their life. Therefore, while your horse may resist your first attempts at leading, tugging and pulling will inevitably teach your horse to associate you with pain and unpleasantness. A horse can be a better friend than a dog, but you have to show them that you can consistently be trusted.
It’s important to put a halter on your foal within hours of birth, and make physical contact through gentle touch daily. After about a week, you should be able to attach a lead rope to your foals halter. Make sure is not long enough for him to step on, but long enough for you to reach from arms length,. Start leading him gently, a few feet at a time, as soon as he is old enough to stray away from his mother. After about four months, when your foal is weaned, if you have been leading him daily, you are ready to begin the next step.
Light work in a round pen should begin at about four to five months. This is when you will have the chance to make your horse the best animal you have ever known. The key is to use natural horsemanship and avoid common mistakes.
Instead of starting out with a whip in your hand, use sounds to teach your horse what you want him to do. A horse will naturally move away from sounds. What you want to do is control that movement by being visual and using positive reinforcement that conveys trust.
The first attempt at training should be done with your horse on a lunge line about 12 feet long. Click, snap or clap to get your horse moving. You can also tickle his back ankles with the end of your lunge line to get him moving forward. Release additional length on the lunge line to move him in an ever-widening circle. Don’t be discouraged if during the first few efforts, your horse seems confused and frightened; that’s because he is. Remember to reassure him with a gentle voice and lots of reassuring touching. A little extra time now will pay off big later.
When your horse starts to trot, repeat the word ‘trot’ over and over while he is trotting. If he slows down or speeds up, get him to trot again, and then continue to repeat the word ‘trot.’ You can associate any word or sound you want, with any action; the process of teaching is the same.
If you work your foal for 15 minutes, every other day for 30 days, then work him the same way twice a week as part of his regular exercise routine, you will have a push-button horse ready for a saddle by the time he is a year and a half old. And the first time you get on his back, you may think he had been ridden for years. That’s not to say that you won’t get a buck or two from him, but by starting him at birth using natural horsemanship, your horse will be comfortable with you on his back and know exactly what you want him to do just by hearing the sound of your voice. The secret is not only in starting your foal young, but by allowing him to mature in a bridle of trust.